One of the great things about the blogosphere is that you get to read the opinions and commentary of a lot of folks you would never get to hear in the mainstream media. Such is the case with all the hubub over the Passion movie. I know that we have all been inundated with "The Passion of the Christ," lately. The folks at Saddleback think this is the best evangelistic opportunity the church has seen in 2000 years, Andrew Webb gives us five reasons not to see the movie, and most folks are somewhere in the middle. Like you I have heard a bunch of stuff from a bunch of people and I thought I would share some of the more salient comments I have heard lately. Most of these are from those "non-mainstream" sources that I didn't think most people would know about.
I would also mention that I hate to be a perpetual wet blanket. Although none of the people I reference below are out and out against the movie, most of them take a far more nuanced approach to it than all of these folks who think this is such a great outreach opportunity. Let me say first of all that I admire Mr. Gibson's courage. For years we have been looking for a movie that portrays religious subjects in a favorable way, and certainly Mr. Gibson has done this. I also admire his courage, to a degree - he has incurred incredible flack for making this movie and I admire him for sticking to his guns.
But, as you will see below there are plenty of other factors evangelicals need to consider before jumping on the bandwagon. This movie certainly has brought the name of Jesus into mainstream discussion, but this may or may not be the boon we think it is. We would do well to consider some of the comments that follow.
1. John MacArthur from Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA.
At the Shepherd's Conference I attended a few weeks ago this was a hot topic. Neither MacArthur nor the other speakers, (R. C. Sproul and Al Mohler) came out and said it was a bad thing, all were cautious in speaking about it. MacArthur acknowledges that people are talking about Jesus as a result of the movie, so we need to be prepared to talk about Jesus. Hence, he has re-published his book The Murder of Jesus, and is also recommending Piper's book on The Passion.
However, his most insightful comments came in a sermon he preached where he mentioned that he had recently gotten a call from GQ Magazine. They are doing an upcoming feature on "The Most Popular Man in America," and that man is Jesus. They thought he might know something about Jesus. MacArthur mentions that Jesus has now jumped into the pop culture and that is a worrisome thing. I would note that when someone or something becomes a pop culture icon it tends to get trivialized.
MacArthur raised a problematic issue with the movie itself. He said that one effect could be to make people feel sorry for Jesus because of all the suffering. This would be a mistake since thousands of people suffered similar tortures at the hands of the Romans in that day. But none, besides Jesus bore the wrath of God. The value of the crucifixion is not in the magnitude of the suffering Jesus endured, but in His bearing of the wrath of God.
Also, the movie is an uninterpreted account of the story of the crucifixion which is insufficient to lead someone to a knowledge of Christ. A movie like the Passion cannot and should not be allowed to stand on its own, the story of the sufferings of Christ must be interpreted and explained and this is what the gospel accounts do.
2. Arch Van Devender of Severn Run Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Severn, MD.
In an article on the Chesapeake Presbytery website, Arch shares some of his reservations about the movie:
My fundamental concern is that it violates the holiness of the event. At the burning bush, God fearsomely spoke to Moses and commanded “Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” There is no more holy ground in all of creation than Calvary and I worry about approaching it through the mass marketing of a movie. Somehow sitting in a comfortable chair with a bag of popcorn and a twenty ounce soda seems incongruous at best and an abomination at worst.
This quote from Arch reminds me of an experience I had in Southern California a couple of weeks ago. My wife and I had the opportunity to attend Saddleback one evening and as we were walking into the service my wife overheard a young lady talking about a church she had attended (I don't think it was Saddleback she was talking about, so I don't want anyone to take my consternation with her comments as necessarily directed at them) where you could bring your coffee into the worship service. She said that she didn't feel like she was at church at all.
Now, since my wife was inadvertently eavesdropping she didn't get the full context. The lady may have said that as an expression of disappointment at the church she had visited, or she may have said that as an expression of delight. Either way, she attended a church service which apparently felt like nothing special - just like everything else in her life. Apparently, at this church there was no sense of the holiness of God. Shouldn't we go to church and sense something different there? Shouldn't we feel a sense of awe to be gathered with God's people for worship.
On the plus side, Arch Van Devender's fears may be ill-founded. Most of the reports I hear are of people coming out of the movie silent and shaken, so this could be a good thing. But his point is well taken - in moving this display of the most important event in history into the theatre, is it not possible that it can be trivialized? It's worth thinking about.
3. Rick Warren, Saddleback Church
The following quote was found on the Dick Staub website from Rick Warren, explaining "the logic behind and success of linking cultural phenomena like The Passion and church response, Leadership Magazine March 18th, 2004."
"I call it 'surfing spiritual waves' in The Purpose Driven Church, and it's the reason Saddleback has grown to 23,500 on weekends in 24 years."
4. Brian McLaren, a leader of the Emerging Church Movement, providing a counterpoint to Warren on the Dick Staub site.
The music was appropriately dramatic: bass strings, heavy and resonant, with a mezzo-forte attack and building to fortissimo from there. Then, against a stark black background, a promotional slogan appeared in bold white capitals. It grew, filling the screen's full width: PERHAPS THE BEST OUTREACH OPPORTUNITY IN 2,000 YEARS. I was watching a video to promote the release of Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of The Christ. One expects hype at such moments, but this slogan made me wince. It defines, I think, a frontier between two worlds. In one world, modern American Christians can be trusted to bounce and bound like golden retrievers from one silver-bullet "outreach opportunity" to the next—seeking single source shortcuts to complete our mission, which we hope to finish as soon as possible, I guess so we can all get to heaven so the world and its troubles are left behind™. Maybe it's a boxed set of books and videos, mass rallies, radio/TV/satellites, the Internet, PowerPoint, or seeker services. Or else it's adult contemporary praise music, electing Republicans, or a new booklet or tract. Maybe it's candles! Or a new model (take your pick from traditional-modern, contemporary-modern, or postmodern-modern) for "doing church." Or a new film. In the other world—which many of us are calling the emerging culture (post-Enlightenment, post-Christendom, post-colonial, etc.)—we are watched with amusement, pity, cynicism. There they go again, emerging culture people say about us, unimpressed.I'm wholly unimpressed with the Emerging Church movement, but I think McLaren exhibited some good insight in the above. We in the evangelical movement are always looking for some "silver bullet" outreach opportunity in the culture, when we already have God's silver bullet - the Bible.
5. Chad Bresson on the Alpha & Omega Ministries site.
This is one of the more insightful reviews I have read of the film. Again, he sees positives in the film, but he raises some issues that many evangelicals are missing. The most pertinent issue he raises is the issue of Roman Catholic Theology. Here is a sample quote from his article:
But Gibson the theologian is a little more disconcerting. I’m not sure that evangelicalism knows the heavy dose of Catholicism it is about to receive via an embedded theology in the storyline. I’ve read many of the reactions in the news reports and websites of evangelical pastors and others who have seen the film in California, Chicago and Florida. I was disappointed to find what has been passed off as “artistic license” is not that, but is sound, Catholic theology flying in under our “artistic license” radar. Evangelicals are passing it off unwittingly as “artistic license”, because evangelicals have no clue what is the content of Marian theology.If you read his article, along with James White's comments (scroll to James' blog entry for 3/1/04) on the same website, what you will find is that this film stands to be a far better evangelistic tool for the Roman Catholic Church than it is for the evangelical church. The reason is that this film is patterned after a Roman Catholic mass as much, or more, than it is patterned after the gospel accounts.
What I see here is that when a Roman Catholic apologist and an evangelical go to talk to a non-believer about the movie, the Roman Catholic apologist will be able to make far more connections from the movie to their theology than we evangelicals will. Many evangelicals can point out, as Bresson does, that most of this stuff will fly under the radar because few of us know enough about Roman Catholocism to make the connection. The typical evangelical can argue that this is straining at gnats because people aren't sophisticated enough in their theology to recognize the subtleties involved in any Roman Catholic theology.
While that may be true, it raises another issue. Is it a good thing that we are so unfamiliar with sound doctrine that potentially questionable theology can fly in under our radar?
6. Bill Smith of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, AL
Rather I will take my life in my hands to say that I do not for a moment think the movie is the evangelistic tool it is touted to be. God does not save by the power of the cinema but by the foolishness of preaching. "Faith comes by hearing (not seeing pictures, moving or otherwise) and hearing through the word of Christ." And how does the hearing occur? "And how are they to hear without someone preaching?' Salvation comes, not by movies, but by preaching the Word of Christ. But don't we in our human frailty need some pictures to help us to faith and keep us in faith? We surely do, and God has given us two "visible words" - baptism and the Lord's Supper. If you want to see someone saved, take him to church, not the movies, and expose him to the means by which God choses to work now to save sinners, as He did in the age of the Apostles. Those means are Word and sacrament.For my money, that's the best comment of the bunch. I am not a flaming negativist on this movie - it may in fact foster some conversations about Christ that otherwise wouldn't have happened. If this becomes a catalyst to get people into God's Word to hear the gospel, then great. However, we live in a world (and a Christian subculture) which denies the sufficiency of Scripture in all ways. We've lost confidence in the power of the Word of God and the simple preaching of the gospel to save, so now we look to Hollywood to preach the gospel for us.